In the days leading up to the 2014 draft, Kony Ealy became a bit of a dark-horse pick for the Panthers with the 28th overall selection. Many fans were not enamored with any of the WR or OT prospects expected to be available when the Panthers selected, and the standout DE from Missouri was consistently given a 1st round grade by national experts. With the reasoning being that Dave Gettleman came from New York, where stockpiling pass-rushers was the modus operandi of the 2000's, many felt that he wouldn't pass up the chance to bolster an already stout defensive front.
Gettleman had other plans however, and nabbed a dangerous red-zone weapon instead; namely, Kelvin Benjamin. 'Lo and behold, Ealy tumbled through the 2nd round as well and at pick 60, the former G-Man just couldn't pass up a player of his caliber. Somehow though, I was more shocked to see us pull the trigger in the 2nd round than I would have been in the 1st. "It's a passing league" as we all know, and typically a premium is put on quality pass-rushers. Discounting character concerns or work-ethic questions, it is more likely to see teams reach for talent at the position than to watch a player free fall the way Ealy did.
Frankly, this scared me. What did these teams know that I didn't? Was there an undisclosed injury concern, or some serious red flag that had been kept quiet? Surely the people who watched him religiously over the last two seasons couldn't all be wrong? To allay my fears, I did what any reasonable draftnik with a wife and two kids - and early plans for Saturday morning - would do on a Friday night: I went back to the tape. I watched all 7 of the games featured for Kony Ealy on draftbreakdown.com, and knowing that my eyes may not have been the freshest at 1 o'clock AM, I came back again and watched them again on Sunday.
Upon my 2nd review, I began to notice something. Ealy is a frustrating player to watch. His strengths and weaknesses don't seem to fit together at all. I will elaborate on that in a moment, but suffice to say that I believe I may have figured out why so many teams passed on a player with so much potential and pedigree - they didn't know how to use him. Now, as we all know Sean McDermott and Ron Rivera value versatility above all else in their defensive scheming, and Ealy brings that in spades. I truly believe that Carolina was the absolute best place he could have landed, and I think we will see Rivera and Co. mold him into a monster over the next few seasons. Now for the reasons why...
The Review: Ealy represents a dichotomy of talents
He is strong at the point of attack and has a quick first step, but is not great at shedding blocks and doesn't have the speed to always finish plays out.
I watched time and again on running plays as he would stack up blockers and clog up running lanes even against consistent double-teams only to not be able to disengage and make the tackle as the RB would finally find a tiny crease to wiggle through. Many of these plays looked like busted plays before ending in a huge gain for the offense. If Ealy can learn to disengage from blockers and get his hands on the ball carrier, he will be an absolute stud in rush defense.
Likewise, on passing downs Ealy would often shoot the gap in an instant and be in the backfield all alone only to lack enough foot speed to close in on the QB for a sack. In this he reminded me of a younger Charles Johnson. CJ's early years were rife with Stephen King endings: anticlimaxes. Seemed like he was always in the backfield, but never closing the deal. This was a big reason for Ealy's underwhelming sack totals. If the NCAA tallied pressures as an official statistic, I bet the kid would have had 80 over the last two years at the rate I watched him rack them up in the limited film I watched.
On standard pass plays his ball-awareness is off the charts, but on play-action and read-option plays they might as well issue an Amber alert, because this kid is lost.
Ealy has an uncanny ability to watch the QB's eyes and stay in his passing lane, and the height and jumping ability to knock passes down at the line. He quite frankly excels at it. In the last 2 seasons Ealy racked up 13 PDs and 1 very impressive INT which he returned 49 yards for a TD. I was very impressed with how he moved laterally to always keep himself in front of the QB, and he times his jumps perfectly to always have a shot at the ball as it passes over his head.
Conversely, if there was a play-action or read-option fake Ealy didn't bite on in the tape I watched, I don't remember seeing it. He always seemed to figure out his mistake very quickly and correct his course, but those few missteps were often the difference between a TFL and a 5-yard gain. For now, I am willing to forgive this. Ealy doesn't seem to have bad instincts at all, but I feel like he is very aware of his speed limitations, and this leads to him knowing that hesitation kills any chance he has of making a play. Therefore, he is very decisive when he makes his move. Often it works, but in the case of play-fakes it seems to be a detriment. This should be a correctable issue, though. I have faith it can be fixed with patient coaching.
The final word
Kony Ealy will be just fine, guys. Every issue I saw on tape can be corrected with coaching, other than his less-than-stellar speed. However, Charles Johnson is not the fastest guy in the league either and he is undoubtedly one of the best 4-3 DEs in the game. It helps that Ealy offers scheme versatility, having played LE, RE, and UT throughout college, and he doesn't seem to take plays off. His inside move is well beyond most rookies entering the league, and with introduction into an NFL strength-and-conditioning program I suspect he will develop a hell of a bull-rush to pair with it. And finally, his ability to track the QB's eyes and play the ball can't be taught. I suspect his batted passes will kill many opponents' drives over the years and hopefully will lead to a turnover or 20 as well.
We may get a chance to see more of Ealy earlier than we all would have liked, due to unforeseen circumstances, and I have little doubt he will step up to the task. Welcome to the team, Kony, and KEEP POUNDING!!!